Potato commission chief looks at this year’s spud conference

For the Basin Business Journal | January 24, 2022 1:00 AM

MOSES LAKE — There are two big things Chris Voigt is excited for about this year’s Washington-Oregon Potato Conference.

The first is the conference itself.

“One, you know, it’s all about information. It’s, you know, listening to the presentation is to get the latest updates on research and policy issues,” said Voigt, executive director of the Washington Potato Commission.

But there’s also the meeting itself, seeing folks you don’t see as often as you’d like and spending time meeting new people and even maybe making new friends.

“And it’s also, you know, meeting with your neighbors and getting information about your neighbors about what’s going on, how they did the last couple of years,” Voigt said. “So, it’s all about sharing information so that we can get better at what we do.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Gary Roth, the executive director of the Oregon Potato Commission.

“It brings together the majority of producers in the state, and that’s always a good opportunity, because I can’t understate the value of networking,” Roth said.

This year, information will be shared and networks formed in person during the three-day Washington-Oregon Potato Conference from Jan. 25 through Jan. 27 at the Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick. It’s an in-person conference after the COVID-19 prompted the Washington Potato Commission and the Oregon Potato Commission to move online last year — something Voigt said worked but lacked what a real, live, in-person conference has.

“We had a virtual conference last year, and it did have a trade show, but it just wasn’t the same,” he said.

This year’s potato conference will include a trade show, talks from industry leaders, education sessions, discussions of the latest research and the always-popular potato bar lunch on Wednesday, Jan. 26, but will also include something new — a keynote cooking lecture and demonstration from certified executive chef and Potatoes USA Culinary Director RJ Harvey.

“RJ is awesome. I’ve seen him do these demonstrations before, to different customer groups, to potato groups. He’s innovative, he’s creative, he’s informative, he’s educational. And he does it in a fun way,” Voigt said.

Voigt said not only will Harvey demonstrate some interesting and creative uses for potatoes, he will also provide the opportunity for everyone present to sample some of the dishes he makes.

“So I think that’s going to be awesome,” Voigt said. “It’s a chance not only to learn how to make it, but then it gives a chance to taste it.”

Voigt said this year’s potato bar will also feature the newly developed Rainier russet, developed by the Potato Variety Management Institute, a joint venture of the Washington, Oregon and Idaho potato commissions to develop new varieties of potatoes that can succeed best in the Pacific Northwest.

“We produce around 200,000 genetically different potato plants every year, and from that, we’re hoping to find essentially the needle in a haystack, the next great potato variety,” he said.

Voigt explained that because potatoes are so complex genetically — they have four sets of chromosomes — that breeding for the optimal trait in potatoes is akin to throwing up a million Yahtzee dice into the air and having them all come down six.

“That is how difficult it is to come up with the perfect detail that you’re looking for,” he said. “So we’re excited to feature this and get people to look at it, and how it tastes.”

Both Roth and Voigt said heat will be among the main subjects of discussion this year, with a pair of talks from Washington State University Researchers Mark Pavek and Jacob Blauer on how to manage potatoes, both in the fields and in storage, to cope with extreme temperatures like those experienced last summer.

“Weather is always important to farmers, and we’ve seen the weather change in Washington and Oregon,” Roth said.

Voigt said the presentation from North Dakota State University researcher Gary Secor will also be worth attending, since Secor is close to retiring and it may be one of the last opportunities potato farmers get to listen to him.

“Not only are they going to learn about some of the potato research that he’s been doing, Gary’s gonna deliver it in a really fun and entertaining way,” Voigt said.

Also presenting at this year’s conference is Washington State Department of Agriculture Director Derek Sanderson, who formerly oversaw the Department of Ecology’s Office of the Columbia River.

“His job was all about finding new water supply, for agriculture and for fish. So having that person who ran that office now as our director of agriculture, it is a perfect combination,” Voigt said.

But Voigt said one of the more important presentations at this year’s conference will be from Russ Groves, a University of Wisconsin, Madison, researcher who is working on RNA pesticides and the use in potato management.

The technology, called RNA interference (RNAi), uses double strands of ribonucleic acid to block the production of a very specific protein in a pest like an insect or a worm. It can be applied to a plant and is then eaten or consumed by the pest like a Colorado potato beetle, Voigt said.

“So it doesn’t make that protein and it dies,” Voigt said. “There’s no chemical residue, there’s no danger to water, and it’s super safe around humans because it’s specific to that pest.”

RNAi technology has the ability “to revolutionize pest control,” Voight said.

“That’s something that everybody needs to pay attention to,” Voigt said.

The conference will also feature presentations on integrated pest management (IPM) and dealing with nutsedge, which Voigt described as “a nasty little weed” that can grow through tubers, robbing potatoes of nutrients and even destroying them.

“I think there’s a lot of people that are suffering from Nutsedge weeds in their field,” Voigt said. “And so we’re putting together a nice presentation on how to control that. That’ll be something I think a lot of folks will be interested in.”

For more information, or to register for this year’s conference, call the Washington Potato Commission at 509-765-8845 or visit the commission’s conference website at www.potatoes.com/potatoconference. Early registration is $10 per person.

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at cfeatherstone@columbiabasinherald.com.